Thursday, September 6, 2012

Enjoy Colorado's Autumn Aspens 2012

Two things signify fall for me. The start of football season and the gilded spectacle of Colorado's aspen strands. Both seem to be here early this year. Peak foliage for Northern Colorado tends to be mid-September, but we drove up to Mt. Evans over Labor Day weekend and were stunned to see strands of bright yellow aspens. Roxborough Park already is showing lots of golds and reds and Summit County and Steamboat Springs also are reporting early color.

So thanks to the drought it appears that we are just days from the start of Colorado's fall color season. It may be a short season this year, so start your planning now. Unfortunately, it's difficult to predict when exactly the leaves will turn in any given location.

Usually the US Forest Service, and outlets like Channel 7's Mike Nelson, 9News or the USDA offer foliage maps to guide us, but not yet this  year. Perhaps they too are caught off guard by the early color. Keep checking their websites for updated info or fall color maps. Colorado State Parks and United States Forest Service will have updated info soon.

In the meantime, it isn't too early to start planning your trip, whether you are considering a day jaunt or a a mini-vacation.

Our tips: Select your travel dates in advance, but be flexible in your destination. Try to leaf-peep on weekdays to avoid heavy traffic. Pack a picnic and plenty of water. Bring warm layers so you aren't surprised by the mountain weather's sudden change. Bring a camera.

Here are some of my favorite fall drives and hikes around metro Denver, plus a couple more adventurous jaunts:

CO 103 from Evergreen Parkway west to Echo Lake. Easy day trip. Take Evergreen Parkway to Squaw Pass Road, turn west. Keep an eye out for elk! Follow Squaw Pass Road (Hwy 103) for about 18 miles to Echo Lake. The road will twist and tur)n through a mix of aspen and pine forests with several good locations to pull off and take photos. The scenery is spectacular accompanied by a variety of wildlife. Echo Lake Lodge stays open until the leaves are down, so stop by for refreshments. From there, turn west and continue to Idaho Springs. Maybe stop for a soak at Indian Hot Springs. At Idaho Springs get on I-70-east. This takes about 3 hours and is one of the best drives in town.

St. Mary's GlacierJust about an hour from west Denver. Take I-70 west past the town of Idaho Springs. Then take exit 238, and turn right on Fall River Road. Enjoy curvy road and golden trees. Road ends at St. Mary's Glacier trailhead, and you can take the 3/4 mile trial for an easy hike (about an hour roundtrip) for a great, relaxing jaunt.

Golden Gate State Park: This is a great place to hike. A 12,000 acre Colorado State Park situated only 30 miles from Denver. Dogs on a leash are welcome. From the city of Golden, take Highway 93 north approximately one mile to Golden Gate Canyon Road. Turn left on that road and drive for about 13 miles to the park. You’ll see the visitor/nature center on your right and it’s a good place to start your visit to the park and get a trail map. Raccoon Trail is a fave, a moderate 2.5 mile loop hike with some parts a bit steep but worth it for the shimmering aspens and  views at Panorama Point. Bring a picnic and enjoy.

Rocky Mountain National Park: About an hour and a half from Denver. From Denver and the east, take U.S. 34 from Loveland, CO or U.S. 36 from Boulder through Estes Park, Very nice, great trails. Crowded on weekends.  Throughout the park's campgrounds, picnic areas, trails and roads, the masses of aspen lay bare all the golden splendor of fall's foliage.

Kenosha Pass --  Easy day trip. Take Highway 285 south. About 20 miles past Bailey. Bring a picnic. Excellent hiking. Park

Highline Canal:  Yep, the best color can be found right here in our own back yard. Park anywhere south of Hampden and head towards Orchard and prepare to be wowed by aspen and cottonwoods. Lots of (leashed) dog walkers, bicyclists, kids, strollers and even horses, so mind your manners, share the road and just appreciate the fact that your are mere minutes from home. There are some picnic areas along the route, check it out here. Tips, rules and regs here.

Guanella Pass -- Easy day trip. A favorite and close to Denver, but sometimes (Monday-Friday: 8-11am and 1-3pm) closed  on the north side of the pass. Supposed to be wide open by Sept. 24, but my advice is to check CDOT wbsite here foar updates.Get there either by taking I-70 to Georgetown and following signs for Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway, or by by taking Highway 285 south from C470 through Conifer and Bailey. At the town of Grant, head north on the Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway to the top of the pass. . The aspens are typically exceptional on the south side of the pass, which sits at 11,699 feet in elevation. This refreshing 23-mile road will take you through the Pike and Arapahoe National Forests. The road is gravel to the top of the pass, which is above timberline. Easy drive and Georgetown is a delightful town and there are some cool autumn activities to check out in Clear Creek County -- see them here.

The Peak-to-Peak Scenic and Historic Byway: Easy day trip. From Black Hawk to Estes Park, this serpentine highway meanders through valleys and skims the top of ridges, taking the most scenic route at every turn. Take Colorado 119 from Black Hawk north to Nederland then follow Colorado 72 to Raymond. From here, proceed on Colorado 7 past the 14,255-foot Longs Peak to Estes Park. Quaking aspens pop up in surprising places along the entire route.

Tennessee Pass, US 24, From Leadville to Vail -- A bit longer day trip, but quite doable. Take I-70 west to Vail and exit onto US 24 east to Leadville. This route follows the Arkansas River and the old Rio Grande Railroad. It was also the original Native American trail across the mountains.  On the west side of the pass the railroad follows the Eagle River down a 3% grade to the mining towns of Minturn and Belden. (Mount of the Holy Cross in the Sawatch Range).

Colorado 67 Between Divide and Cripple Creek -- A bit longer day trip, but quite doable. Take I-25 south to Colorado Springs, exit onto US 24 west (exit 141) toward the charming town of Woodland Park. At Divide head south on Highway 67 toward Cripple Creek and Victor. The scenic Golden Loop Historic Parkway between Cripple Creek and Victor offers amazing colors, and gives you as sense of those heady gold rush days. You also get to cross  Colorado's highest bridge on the state highway system. The bridge crosses Arequa Gulch just west of Victor, is 250 feet tall at it's highest point, and 1,218 feet long.

Cottonwood Pass, Colorado 306 Between Buena Vista and Taylor Park -- You can do it in a day, but an early start is needed. Take Highway 285 south to beautiful Buena Vista (FYI: We Coloradans pronounce it "Byoona Vista" not "Bwayna Veesta") where you will meet up with Highway 306. Head west over Cottonwood Pass (12,126 feet) and find yourself surrounded by several of Colorado's highest peaks, including Mt. Yale (14,194 feet), Mt. Princeton (14,197 feet), Mt. Antero (14,269 feet), and Mt. Harvard (14,420 feet). West of the pass you cut through Taylor Park and by the Taylor Park Reservoir on your way to Almont. Once in Almont, take Highway 135 south to Gunnison where Highway 50 east will bring you back to Highway 285 Salida. This drive is nirvana, but in my opinion all of Chaffee County is heaven so you can't go wrong in this part of Colorado.

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